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A year of protest, progress and a very special prize

Just as Time magazine named the Protester as its person of the year, so did unrest shape much of 2011 for the University of California.

Reverberations from January and February's anti-Mubarek protests in Egypt were felt halfway around the world, as UC took emergency measures to evacuate 30 students, faculty and staff enrolled in a study abroad program and taking part in an archaeological dig.

Less than a year later, protest came much closer to home. The Occupy Wall Street movement — which UC experts analyzed early on — by November had grown into Occupy UC, fueled by student frustration over rising tuition and state disinvestment in public higher education. While nearly every UC campus had an Occupy UC presence, tensions escalated between protesters and police on the Berkeley and Davis campuses.  Scenes of officers wielding batons and pepper spray against students, prompted President Mark Yudof to reaffirm UC's commitment to peaceful protest. UC's response culminated with the naming of an investigatory task force, chaired by former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso.

The core issue behind Occupy UC — rising tuition as the result of ever-declining state support — colored events throughout 2011. In January, Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed state budget slashed $500 million from UC: a cut (which climbed to $650 million in the final budget, signed in June) that, for the first time, reduced state support below that paid by student in tuition.  

As a result, UC Regents in July approved a 9.6 percent tuition increase for fall 2011, on top of an 8 percent increase approved the previous November. Year-end "trigger" cuts in state support slashed another $100 million from UC after state revenue fell below projections, but UC pledged to close the budget gap without additional tuition hikes.

The rising cost of education did not deter high school seniors and undergraduate transfers hoping to pursue a UC education. Fall 2011 undergraduate applications rose for the seventh straight year, numbering a record 142,235. Waitlists again were implemented at most campuses.

Medical breakthroughs

The gloom of the budget situation is always brightened at spring's end with commencement. That joy was brighter still for a UC Berkeley senior who, against all odds, was able to walk in the commencement ceremony. Austin Whitney, who was paralyzed in a car wreck after graduating high school, took those precious steps thanks to an exoskeleton developed by a team of UC Berkeley engineers.

UC medical research helped many others live better this past year. Surgeons at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in March performed the first hand transplant in the western United States. (The recipient, Emily Fennell, will be waving from a float in the 2012 Rose Parade on Jan. 2.) In January, a UC Davis surgical team introduced a woman who in October 2010 received a new larynx — the second documented case of its kind in the world. Also in January, UC San Diego surgeons performed the first implant of a total artificial heart; and in September, a successful "domino" liver transplant at UC San Diego — a patient received a new organ and a second patient received the first patient's liver — saved two lives.

Several campuses continued their pioneering work in medical robotics.  Robot-assisted surgeries for lobe removal to treat lung cancer, and for spinal implants, were performed at UC Irvine in March; UC San Francisco opened an automated hospital pharmacy in March; and UC Santa Cruz launched a new major in robotics engineering, open for enrollment in fall 2011.

Doctors at UC Davis Children's Hospital helped one fortunate young girl simply live: The 8-year-old from rural Northern California became just the third person in the United States to recover from rabies without receiving the rabies vaccine.

Plumbing the universe

Research breakthroughs extended from the hospital bed to the far reaches of the cosmos. With the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers at UC Riverside and UC Santa Cruz each announced in January the discovery of galaxies some 12 billion to 13 billion light-years away. In December, an international team that included astronomers from UC Riverside found yet another distant galaxy — 12.9 billion light-years away — that now is being seen in its youth, churning out stars at a prodigious rate.

Astronomers at UC Berkeley discovered the largest black holes found to date: two giants, with masses equivalent to 10 billion suns, that threaten to consume anything — even light — within a range that is five times the size of our solar system.

UC Santa Cruz astronomers found pristine clouds of the primordial gas that formed in the first moments after the Big Bang. J. Xavier Prochaska and Michele Fumagalli's discovery was named one of 2011's top 10 breakthroughs by Physics World. Also on the top 10 list: quantum hardware developed by physicists at UC Santa Barbara.

In December, UC San Diego physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider drew closer to declaring the discovery of the Higgs boson, the last missing piece of the Standard Model of subatomic particles, which describes the basic elements of matter and the forces through which they interact.

Perhaps the biggest physics news of the year was the Nobel Prize being awarded to Saul Perlmutter of Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley. Perlmutter, the 57th UC researcher to be honored with a Nobel Prize, was cited for his work with the Supernova Cosmology Project.

Change and constancy

The year was one of transition throughout much of the UC system. UC Merced welcomed its third chancellor, Dorothy Leland, in July. Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories welcomed Charles McMillan and Penrose Albright into director positions. Meanwhile, UC San Diego Chancellor Marye Anne Fox announced in July her plans to step down in June 2012. Dr. Lawrence Pitts, UC provost, announced in September his plans to retire in February 2012.

Even in the face of transition, some things remained constant.  For the 18th consecutive year, UC was awarded the most U.S. patents of any university, according to the Intellectual Property Owners Association. As of 2010 (the most recent year available), UC holds 3,802 active patents.

UC continues to be highly regarded nationwide and around the globe, again garnering top rankings in educational quality, health care and sustainability from U.S. News and World Report, Washington Monthly, Center for World-Class Universities, Times Higher Education and the Sierra Club.

A long-awaited economic impact report, released in September, confirmed what often is taken for granted: UC is a key economic catalyst for California, generating $46.3 billion in annual economic activity for the state and supporting one of every 46 jobs in California.

"This report shows that the state receives a strong direct return on its investment in public higher education," said President Yudof. "But an even greater return on investment, beyond the impact of expenditures, occurs because UC helps transform lives and society through its education, research, public service and health care."